Donna Jacob, PhD

she/her/hers

  • Education:
    • Environmental Biology, Beloit College 1991
    • Botany (MSc and PhD), University College Dublin 2004

Current job title: Environmental Scientist

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue? 

I think I was born a scientist – I always was interested in the natural world and had critical thinking skills. I was fortunate to have gone on family vacations to many national parks around the US, so at a young age I was able to see various ecosystems in North America. When I was nine years old, I found the word for the thing I wanted to be when I grew up.  I found a Botany textbook in the library and, being a nerdy child, I began telling people I was going to be a botanist. Then, in 7th grade, my skills really became honed.  We had an assignment to make a collection of tree leaves. Fifty leaves would earn a B grade, 100 leaves would earn an A. Well, I collected 150 different species and enjoyed every minute of it.  So, I went on to become a field botanist.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career. 

My 6thgrade teacher saw something in me and gave me some small science experiments to work on. My undergraduate advisor helped me define better what I was good at and he generously took his own time to teach me Plant Systematics, a class in which I was the only student. 

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it? 

I lived with doubt until the age of about 46. This lasted through many different jobs and career paths. Finally, now in middle age, I have the confidence in my skills and talents, and feel competent. My husband, also a scientist, tells me I should not have doubted myself so much, but I seem to have really high standards.  If I could talk to my younger self, I’d recommend to not be so self-critical.

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path. 

My first love was paleobotany – I got internships with the Smithsonian and the Field Museum. Maybe that could have turned into a career, but I made some life decisions that were incompatible with this direction. I got married and decided to move to the mountains. Well, I spent the next six years working odd jobs, mostly not in science, and trying to get into graduate school.  One of the main problems was that I didn’t know how to get into graduate school – I didn’t know to travel to meet people, I didn’t know that you needed to find a professor who has a project, I didn’t know anyone who had been to graduate school. So, after six years of applying, paying fees, and being rejected, I gave up. My husband suddenly got an opportunity to work in Ireland, so we moved. There, I spoke with professors at University and they gave me a chance. I made something of this luck, completed a Master’s degree, and they asked me to stay for a PhD working in wetlands. After ten years as a research professor, I moved to the private sector as a consultant because soft-money funding was problematic. It’s not research, but it enables me to use my expertise in wetland science for restoration projects where I can contribute to the world.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work. 

Non-scientific interests? I have incorporated my scientific interests into my hobbies – I love to use wild plants in art.

Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path. 

My advice would be to take all opportunities, even if they are outside your comfort zone, and be flexible to changes or tangential career paths.

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